Monday, July 18, 2011

How to Be a Popular Teacher

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

As anyone who has ever worked in a language school or other educational institution will know, it is a fact of life that some teachers are more popular than others. Come to think of it, anyone who has ever been to school will know that! I remember from my own school days that there were huge differences in the way the teachers were regarded by pupils. Some were loved and respected, while others were despised and ridiculed. Of course, it is not the case that the most popular teachers are necessarily the best teachers, and teaching should never be a popularity contest, but it is a matter of common sense that a teacher who is popular (or at least, not unpopular) with his or her students will probably find it easier to be effective in the classroom.

Like most teachers, I would like to think that I am generally popular with my students. Having said that, I am reminded of a survey in Britain that found that almost 80% of drivers believe that they are better than average. I suspect that a similar result would be found if language teachers were asked to assess our own popularity! Leaving that aside for a moment, however, it is interesting to consider what it is about a teacher that makes him or her popular. In my case, for example, it would be nice to think that my students like me simply because I am a likeable person, but as I am not, I think that is probably quite unlikely! It would also be nice to think that they like me because of my wonderful teaching skills, but I don’t think I am any more popular now than I was when I first started out, and I most certainly could not have claimed to be a great teacher in the early stages of my career.

A few years ago, I found one answer to this question thanks to a director of studies at a language school where I was working for the summer. The director came to observe my lesson, and after the class, we sat down for a feedback session. As is normal, she started by giving me positive feedback. She pointed out that the students seemed to have really enjoyed my lesson, and she asked me if I knew why. I replied that I did not, so she told me:

“From the minute you walk into the classroom, it is quite obvious that there is nowhere you would rather be and nothing you would rather be doing.”

Put simply, I suppose she was saying that the students liked me because I liked them. For me, that was just my normal way of approaching a lesson, and I had always assumed that every teacher goes into the class in that frame of mind. Thinking about it afterwards, however, I realized that is probably not the case. Anyway, my first point is that students will enjoy being taught by you if they get the feeling that you enjoy teaching them. I think it is important for all of us to remind ourselves of that every time we step into the classroom.

The second thing I have noticed over the years is that students tend to like teachers who remember names. Actually, I think that it is difficult to overstress the importance of remembering the names of your students, or at least making it clear that you are making a serious effort to do so. I have met a lot of teachers who have said, “Oh, I’m no good at remembering names, so I don’t even try anymore.” I may be wrong, but I would be willing to bet that these teachers would be able to establish a much better rapport with their students if they took the time and trouble to learn their names, however difficult that might be.

Of course, one problem with trying to learn students’ names is that you will inevitably learn some before others. Another problem is that you will occasionally make mistakes. These are difficult problems, because it can be a bit embarrassing for both you and the students if you remember most people’s names but forget one or two, or if you call someone by the wrong name. For this reason, I always explain to my students when I have a new class that it will be easier for me to remember some of their names than others, and that this will probably be for reasons that have nothing to do with them as people. I point out, for example, that if anyone has the same name as a student in another class that I know well, or even the same name as one of my friends, it will be easier for me to remember them. In other words, whether I remember someone’s name or not may have more to do with my life history than their personality or appearance. I try to make it clear that I will remember everyone’s name eventually, but I stress that I will need their understanding and cooperation in order to help me do that.

The final point I would like to mention is one that Tamara wrote about a while back, and again, it is really simple: students appreciate teachers who take their job seriously. No reasonable student expects their teacher to know everything, but most people want and expect to be taught by someone who cares enough about their job to spend time and effort learning how to do it well. Having a reputation as a “fun” teacher can be a good thing, but it needs to be backed up by a professional approach to the bits of the job that might not be so glamorous and interesting.

So, those are my three tips for being a popular teacher: enjoy your work, learn your students’ names, and take your job seriously. I’m sure that most of you will not need me to point out such obvious things, but I would love to get a discussion going and find out what other people think about this topic.

Look forward to hearing your ideas.


Comment from adelfa
July 19, 2011 at 12:03 am

“My students love me because I am strict. I am strict because I love them”. This is my approach to teaching effectively. But I agree with you 110%. If we don’t enjoy our work, the students won’t enjoy studying with us either and if we don’t take our job seriously, who will study seriously with us? Some of my colleagues are popular because they have sense of humor and they don’t put pressure on their students. Others are popular too because they have been in the institution for a very long time. Because they are popular doesn’t mean they are good teachers. Good teachers are those who care what they do.

Comment from David Barker
July 19, 2011 at 1:02 am

Thanks Adelfa,

I agree with you entirely that just being popular doesn’t make someone a good teacher, but I would also say that really good teachers tend, generally, to be popular. If you really care about what you do and try hard to be good at it, students will recognize that and respect you for it.

Comment from Mossaab Cherai
July 19, 2011 at 1:57 am

Thank you David. Your articles are always interesting and “popular” 🙂 I totally agree with you.

Comment from Tamara Jones
July 19, 2011 at 3:45 am

I totally agree that we need to love our jobs. But, on the days we don’t (and we have all had those days when it takes more effort to smile than others) we need to fake it until it’s true. Even when I am tired and crabby, if I can smile and get over myself for the first few moments of class, I find that my bad mood slides off me.

Comment from David Barker
July 19, 2011 at 5:53 am

Thanks Mossaab,
Glad you liked the article.

Hi Tamara,
That is exactly what I was talking about when I said that we need to remind ourselves of the importance of enjoying what we do every time we step into the classroom. By the way, I hope you didn’t mind me pinching material from one of your posts. 🙂

Comment from Ligia López
July 19, 2011 at 10:42 am

Thanks, very interesting this article.

Comment from Omar Bentabet
July 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Well, it’s interesting to talk over a topic like this.Mainly, the manner we see ourselves as teachers or the way we are judged by others is of importance for both teachers and students alike. I totally agree with David. I think remembering students’ names is of immense importance; it shows that the instructor really cares for those who teaches. Sometimes, it’s difficult to remember names, especially if you are to teach large classes – as is the case in my country. but here is a strategy that I learnt from an American teacher who happened to lecture in one of our summer seminars. Right from the beginning of the one-week seminar, he asked us to write our names in a sheet of paper and just put in front of us the time we were with him. He would circulate from time to time and have a look at our names, and believe it or not by the end of the seminar he managed to remember nearly our names. He used to surprise us every now and them calling us by our first names, saying kindly: “are you Omar?”. This was just an example. I followed his method and it worked well. A month after meeting my student, I nearly remember their names and they like it a lot!

Comment from Omar Bentabet
July 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm

By the way, the number of teachers who attended the seminar exceeded 120.

Comment from David Barker
July 19, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Hi Ligia,

Thanks for your comment.

Hi Omar,

That’s a very interesting point. I hadn’t thought about classes with more than 100 students. As you say, however even in classes like that, I think it is important for the teacher to show that he or she is interested enough to try learning at least some of the students’ names.

Comment from Annie
July 20, 2011 at 1:14 am

I entirely agree with you. Those three tips are the most important things when teaching. I can only add one thing: never plan the lesson before entering the classroom, may be it will sound strange, but I say from my practice. For example when you plan to give grammer lessons, enter the classroom, and see that students do not care about any grammer points, so you should change the direction in order to make your lesson more effective. So it is my advice!

Comment from David Barker
July 20, 2011 at 1:26 am

Hi Annie,

Thanks for the tip. I agree that it is very important to be flexible.

Comment from bita talebi
July 20, 2011 at 10:48 am

Dear colleague thanks a lot for sending me this email. I am an English teacher in an Institute in Iran teaching adults and young adults. I really agree with your comments about being a popular teacher. As I really love my job and teaching, I look forward to reaching my classes everyday and this will affect my students to learn eagerly
I call all of my students by their first name from the beginning of a new term to the end and never call them by a wrong name, if I forget one name I look at the list and find it very quickly and I won’t call her or him until I am sure about it
And I think the role of the teacher is very important in not letting the class atmosphere to be boring. Class boredom will make the teacher less popular even unpopular, so keeping the class lively and energetic is an art not just doing a task.

Comment from Ruruh Mindari
July 20, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Thank you so much for your three tips. At least I have met the second and third, and I need to improve the first.

Comment from David Barker
July 24, 2011 at 3:06 am

Thanks bita and Ruruh,

I’m glad to hear that the article was useful for you.

Comment from mohiuddin khan
August 5, 2011 at 8:43 am

i really appreciate your three techniques. i will try to apply these.

Comment from J.R.
August 21, 2011 at 1:43 pm

I must say that I liked that fact that you mentioned the British survey in which 80% of drivers viewed their driving skills as superior! This is so true! I have been teaching English to adults for some years now. I think that you are right that enthusiasm and a keen interest in what you are doing are critical to creating a positive positive impression and a productive learning environment. If I think back upon ‘the secret of my success’ (hey, I was part of your driving survey!), i would say that it was the fact that I was able to bond with my students. Feeling liked, accepted and respected made my students feel good about being with me during our time together.

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